Hochevar’s Odd 2009

The esteemed Joe Posnanski wrote about the ultimate spring training story in a post artistically named, get this, The Ultimate Spring Training Story. Posnanski’s muse was Kyle Farnsworth and his attempt at rejuvenation by joining the rotation. Posnanski might be the greatest baseball writer alive not named Peter Gammons, but he might have missed the boat on this one, because Farnsworth’s teammate is probably more deserving of such a title.

Luke Hochevar is not what one could describe as irrelevant. Not yet, at least. His career has been a mixture of highs and lows. In 2005 the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Hochevar (out of the University of Tennessee) with the 40th overall pick. Agent Scott Boras drove a hard bargain – so hard that Hochevar himself removed Boras as his agent at one point, signed another agent, agreed to a deal, then walked away and rehired Boras. He would not sign with the Dodgers and would go 39 picks earlier the next year, as the Kansas City Royals chose him first overall. That was over Tim Lincecum, Evan Longoria, and Clayton Kershaw, amongst others. Hochevar received a $3.5M signing bonus and joined the Royals’ minor league system weeks later.

Fast forward to present day and Hochevar has made 51 appearances in the majors with career statistics of: 284.2 IP, 183 SO, 97 BB, 36 HR, 4.54 xFIP, and a 4.67 tERA. That’s not quite as poor as his 5.88 or 13-26 win-loss record suggests, but it’s still not first overall pick material. Avoiding bust status isn’t the reason Hochevar is the ultimate spring story, though; oh no, it’s because someone needs to ask him how it felt to lay claim to probably the weirdest season in the Majors last year. Behold his monthly splits:

May: 11.2 IP, 2.31 K/9, 5.93 xFIP
June: 33.2 IP, 4.01 K/9, 4.69 xFIP
July: 31.1 IP, 9.77 K/9, 3.03 xFIP
August: 34.2 IP, 8.31 K/9, 4.03 xFIP
Sept/Oct: 31.2 IP, 6.25 K/9, 5.03 xFIP

Enough’s been written about how granular 40 innings is, but talk about some extreme data points. Hochevar went from striking out nobody to striking out mostly everyone. The natural reaction to such a polar shift is to look for the variables that changed. Here is his pitchfx usage chart, which seems to suggest he began using his curve more and his slider less. Which shouldn’t make him more effective, considering his curve was the worst pitch in his arsenal (per run values per 100 pitches) and his slider was the best.

So, like Dave Cameron did last week, allow me to question the Royals fans (and Dave Allen) out there: What changed in July that caused Hochevar to transform from Livan Hernandez to Tim Lincecum for a two month stint? Or, did nothing change and Hochevar’s data simply suffered from the same sample size issues that his May and June did?




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23 Responses to “Hochevar’s Odd 2009”

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  1. frank says:

    dude, peter gammons fucking sucks.

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  2. kcscoliny says:

    There was tons of rumors about Hoch tipping his pitches.

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  3. Steve says:

    Are there 2 Peter Gammons??

    Yes, I realize that Gammons was a very good writer back in the day. But in the present day, he’s just a schill for the Sox. BFD.

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    • Just because Willie McCovey is in a wheelchair doesn’t diminish the fact that he was one of the best first basemen of all time.

      You have to look at the body of work.

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      • Steve says:

        You’re right, the phrasing does allow for that. In my mind I was thinking the author meant “greatest writer working today”, but that’s not what he said. I withdraw my objection.

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    • TsB says:

      Perhaps i’m biased because i’ve always liked him, but I don’t see that Peter Gammons has done anything to tarnish his reputation. He writes quality articles for MLB.com and has been open in the past few years or so to incorporate stats such as WAR and UZR to back up the assertions he makes.

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  4. cwik02 says:

    RJ,
    Everything I have read about Hochevar’s improvement is that he was working on/developing a splitter. This article mentions that he started throwing it towards mid-end July, which could explain his jump in Ks.

    http://www.kansascity.com/2009/08/10/1374949/royals-notes-hochevar-working.html

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  5. My Grate Friend, Peason says:

    RJ,

    Poz actually had a couple of posts about/mentioning Hochevar last year, so he may have wanted to focus elsewhere for a Spring Training story.

    1. http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/09/29/the-remarkable-royals/

    2. http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/10/05/the-hochevar-principle/

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    • Bryz says:

      Thank you for finding those. I’m sure Poz is getting a bit tired of repeating how odd Hochevar’s 2009 was, especially when he’s already extensively covered it.

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  6. walt says:

    hochevar was indeed tipping his pitches. he can be effective against teams that do not know what he is throwing.

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  7. Jeff Zimmerman says:

    The tipping has been stated and he faced interleague play where people might not have seem him as much. There was a game he ate up the Reds.

    Luke would benefit if he could also get a real infield to defend the ground balls he induces. He really needs to head to Colorado.

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    • Steve says:

      Serious question: is “tipping his pitches” another one of those “working on a new pitch”/”best shape of his life” myths?? i seem to remember that was the cure for Smoltz after the Red Sox dumped him, and he had a few good starts, then pretty much went back to getting hammered again. Not that one case proves anything, but “tipping his pitches” always struck me as a generic excuse for when coaches are trying to cover for their player. Thoughts?

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      • PhD Brian says:

        Teams employ guys that spend their entire days looking for how pitchers might be tipping. Their must be something to it.

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  8. EGK says:

    Going on memory alone, I remember a period of great improvement in his pitch locations. I remember thinking that he had possibly shook off the demon of leaving too many pitches up in the zone and out over the middle of the plate.

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  9. Paul says:

    Comparing his SO rates here is just meaningless. He had a few high SO games that made those monthly numbers stand out, but by far his “best” games were the lower SO, high GB games. The numbers are also a bit skewed because his small sample size is self-induced. 5 IP w/4 SO for a month looks pretty decent, especially if Roman Colon or some other Braves cast-off bails him out for two weeks before reverting to form.

    I think we need to define “tipping pitches”. If you mean that he has a tendency to eat up a lineup for four innings with the sinker before they start looking for it, then lucks out with his extremely mediocre curve, then they start hitting that mediocre hanging curve over the fence, then yes, he tips his pitches.

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  10. BrettFan1 says:

    Hochevar’s problems are not all his fault. He was a sinker/slider pitcher in college and then the Royals, an organization that prefers their starters to use the curve as their primary breaking pitch, had him abandon the slider in the minors and focus on the curve. Then, he came up and realized that it doesn’t matter how many groundballs you get if no one catches them and started trying to figure out how to strike people out. His strikeout numbers jumped around as he tried to figure out how to put hitters away. If you watch the game against texas where he struck out 13, at least 11 of those were finished off with the curve. Hopefully, this year he can focus on inducing groundballs early in the count and figure out how to put hitters away with either the slider or the curve when he gets to two strikes.

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    • Casper says:

      BrettFan1 pretty much nailed it: I think it was something like 66% of of the team’s error’s last year came on the infield, which obviously will impact you if you’re a groundball pitcher like Hoch. He started out following the coach’s M.O. about pitching to contact but then mid-way he started experimenting with a cutter (McClure, the pitching coach, seems to have everyone playing with the cutter) and the curveball. He didn’t throw the curve much until he went pro (as has been noted – the Royals prefer the curve over the slider because it puts less strain on the arm, or say they believe) but I remember watching him in the middle of last year and noted that his curveball had begun to improve quite a bit (he had a 13k performance at home against the Rangers – no slouch for a lineup – and he pretty much did it all with his curveball). The stats may show his curve was his worst pitch but it’s basically because he’s still learning how to throw it. Finally, the biggest problem Hoch has is between his ears – he doesn’t know what kind of pitcher he wants to be. In fact, just this morning on my way to work one of our local sports talk guys was talking about an interview they had with Hoch where he stated the Royals wanted him to be a groundball pitcher but that he didn’t see himself/want to be as/a groundball pitcher.

      Sorry so long…

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  11. geo says:

    Hochevar always seems to get bitten by the “big inning” bug – once one batter gets on base they come in bunches and he can’t seem to stop the bleeding. Now, this to me screams “problems pitching from the stretch,” and I would think/hope that the Royals have looked at this closely. But to a certain degree I also think that a lot of his troubles are between his ears.

    I also seem to recall him saying around mid-season that he was starting to adopt less of a pitch-to-contact approach and more of a strikeout approach, which would jibe with what another commenter said. Regardless, I think the most impressive game I saw him pitch this year was the 80 pitch complete game against the Reds on June 12. Of course, they cooperated grandly, first-pitch swinging all the way and beating everything into the ground. I didn’t see his 13 strikeout game so can’t comment on that. But he spent the season alternating between dominating and pounded.

    Reports of pitch tipping indicated that it was fairly widespread knowledge, but it was September before this was discovered:

    http://royalsauthority.com/2009-articles/september/on-lineups-and-tipping.html

    http://www.kansascity.com/2009/09/10/1436936/hochevar-thinks-problem-might.html

    The discovery didn’t seem to help much, though, because he went 1-4 in his last five starts of the season with an ERA of 8.36. He may have been working on a mechanics change, though, to eliminate the tipping, so that could be some kind of explanation.

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  12. PhD Brian says:

    Hochevar might be a deep sleeper candidate this year. I think he is worth a very low draft pick to see.

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